The Digital Dark Age

Digitising archives are not for the purpose of preserving archive material longer, but to disseminate and distribute information remotely and quickly. The debate of analogue vs digital in many of the creative disciplines (music, photography and literature) does now include archives. What can archives gain being online, and also what do they sacrifice? I found an event from the International Centre of Photography from October 2013, which I wish I had attended as it addresses these intersting questions.

Organized by ICP, What Is an Archive? will examine what expectations scholars, curators, and online visitors bring to physical versus online archives and how their use differs. Participants will also discuss how archives are made public through museum exhibitions, catalogues, and web presentations, focusing on successes as well as failures.

ICP, New York, 2013

Regardless, I have been looking into the Digital Dark Age and how it might affect archives which are being digitised. The Digital Dark Age is a term which means that our information will not be accessible in the future because of the means of which they are bound. For example: information that was once stored on Floppy Disks are now incompatible with the current common technology. Although our technology has come a long way which means that we can create and interact with exciting softwares; but the technology is fluid and we in danger of losing sight of valuable information. Over the last twenty years we have seen constant new innovations in technology: from mobile phones to broadband internet to now smartphones, 4G and fiberoptic internet. Information that I had on our desktop computer which ran on Windows 98 has now vanished. Who is to say that in twenty years in the future that this ‘smart’ information of today isn’t easily accessible? We trust to bind our information in machines which are not designed with ‘permanence’ in mind.

Since 1994, the Library of Congress have been digitising its physical collection onto CDs, which at the time was innovative storage technology. However now, 1 in 10 of these CDs are said to be corrupted and unreadable. To redigitise the lost data would require more research, more time and consequently more money; furthermore, taking the information off fragile discs and storing them on hard drives will also be a lengthy procedure. Yet, how many times have we known our hard drive to corrupt? Several copies should really be made of this information.

The Dead Sea scrolls, made out of still-readable parchment and papyrus, are believed to have been created more than 2,000 years ago. Yet my barely 10-year-old digital floppy disks were essentially lost. I was furious! How had the shiny new world of digital data, which I had been taught was so superior to the old “analog” world, failed me? I wondered: Had I had simply misplaced my faith, or was I missing something?

This is the idea—or fear!—that if we cannot learn to explicitly save our digital data, we will lose that data and, with it, the record that future generations might use to remember and understand us.

– Kurt Bollacker

So not only are we putting at risk historical digitised content, but our current content that we are making every day. The content in which we are subconsciously archiving for future use, or future generations to learn about the early 2000s. Today’s produced content is tomorrow’s historical document. D.J Cohen suggests that “the vast expansion of the historical record into new media that occurred between these dates presents serious challenges that will have to be surmounted if future scholars and the public are to have access to an adequate record of the past.”

This knock-on effect of realising the fragility of our records which we trust on electronic devices has reached librations and archivists. James Billington from the Library of Congress recognises ”we are in danger of losing history itself because the artifacts that historians have relied upon for centuries may not always be available when they are increasingly only obtainable in the more fragile, evanescent digital world.” Therefore, it is important that archives consider what is the purpose of digitising its archive because it should not be for preservation.

The State Records of Australia has a document to identify the purpose to digitise and that is for distribution.

Being able to deliver records in digital form certainly increase opportunities for  access. Location is no longer an impediment, and records can be viewed  concurrently, copied, disseminated to, viewed and used by multiple stakeholders quickly and easily. Having records in digital form also increases the capacity for them to be re-used.

State Records NSW

Over time looking at archive projects online, I believe this to be true to a degree. Public archives have been uploading its photography onto Flickr the Commons with the intention to increase conversations and interaction with the imagery; but in turn, having the files living on the Flickr server as well as their own does mean that at least there is a ‘back up’ so to speak to help with preservation. Flickr is a company which I don’t doubt will endeavour to keep up to date with technology which hopefully in turn will preserve the digitised archives.

But this is the question; how long do these digitised archives want to be distributing and sharing information? As long as the medium allows of longer? Despite not openly stating that they wish to preserve online archives, it would be a shame not to: in terms of workload and also in monetary cost to digitise.

Some archives such as the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) have said that “the highest priority [is] given to the most rapidly deteriorating photographs,” for digitisation; why is this? They state that they wish to digitise the whole collection for better accessibility and usability of the archive and of course, in the not so distant future, some of these artefacts will be too fragile to digitise. So in essence there must be more of a behind-the-scenes emphasis to sustain the digitised archive as our technology changes.

Takeaway

I have understood that digital technology is vulnerable and fluid and that archives are having to address these drawbacks as they wish to progress to sharing their contents through this medium. Do I want my project of the George Rodger Archive to fall victim to the Digital Dark Age? No.  The AIF have different departments to both preserve the physical archive, digitise it and preserve its online existence; at the moment, I am working alone on this project. In the future, I would love to be able to have a team of people to help with building an interactive and open view of the archive online; however now, I feel that this is outside my capabilities of doing it justice in the immediate future. I would like to explore how I can use other techniques to increase interaction, awareness and interest in the George Rodger Archive.

Bibliography

Arab Image Foundation. (2014) About available online: http://www.fai.org.lb/Template.aspx?id=3. Last Accessed 18th March 2014

Bollacker, K. (2010). Avoiding a Digital Dark Age. Available online:http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2010/3/avoiding-a-digital-dark-age. Last accessed 18th March 2014.

Cohen. (2010). Preserving and Conserving Archived Photographs: An Annotated Bibliography. Available online: http://www.webjunction.org/documents/webjunction/Preserving_and_Conserving_Archived_Photographs_An_Annotated_Bibliography.html. Last Accessed 18th March 2014

Fineberg, G. (2003). Capturing the Web. Available online: http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0304/digital.html Last accessed 18th March 2014

Flickr The Commons. Available Online: http://www.flickr.com/commons  Last Accessed 15th March 2014
International Center of Photography. (2013). What is an Archive? Available online: http://www.icp.org/events/2013/october/24/what-archive. Last Accessed 18th March 2014

NSW Goverment. (2014) Why Digitise 1.3 Reasons for Digitisation. Available online: http://www.records.nsw.gov.au/recordkeeping/government-recordkeeping-manual/guidance/guidelines/files/guideline-25-bc-1.-why-digitise Last Accessed 18th March 2014

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